“Phone’s ringin’, Nuck.”
On the one hand, I can’t blame Nucky for shutting out the world whenever he’s with Billie Kent. She is so adorably enchanting that even Margaret‘s savvy banter may not be able to compete with this showgirl’s winning smile. But on the other hand, Nucky’s Manhattan trysts are already interfering with his ability to stay on top of business: While Nucky and his mistress were enjoying a hobo-style meal in Billie’s cozy apartment, Gyp Rosetti was ensuring that Nucky’s liquor shipment to Arnold Rothstein would never arrive at its Brooklyn destination.
After remaining MIA for the season premiere, Eli Thompson and Chalky White resurfaced this episode. The former Atlantic County sheriff, who took the fall in Nucky’s election-fraud case (a fair deal, considering he tried to have his brother killed), has been released from prison and is now in unfamiliar territory at the bottom of the totem pole in Nucky’s empire. Chalky, who initially bristled at the idea of a well-bred, educated gentleman joining his family, has changed his tune in the past year regarding his daughter’s medical-student beau, Samuel. The problem is, Maybelle isn’t terribly eager to settle down with a boring ol’ doctor – she wants someone more exciting, like her dangerous daddy. Chalky may be able to provide a comfortable existence for his family, but by doing so, he’s only succeeded in convincing Maybelle that it’s fun and glamorous to be a criminal. Impressive, considering this is more than a half-century before the emergence of gangsta rap.
Last Chance for Gas
We open with a haggard, dejected Eli exiting the jail where he’s spent the past 16 months, remarking to Mickey Doyle, who’s been saddled with the task of collecting him, what’s on all our minds at that moment: “How the fuck are you still alive?” Mickey is definitely doing something right, because he’s now Eli’s boss – and Eli has been relegated to just another working stiff helping to deliver a liquor shipment to New York the next night. Before Mickey drops Eli at home, they make a pit stop in the (fictional) town of Tabor Heights, New Jersey, to hand over a wad of cash to the local sheriff, ensuring that their very, very wet convoy doesn’t hit any speed bumps when it rolls through for gasoline. The money appears to work its magic later that evening when Gyp enters a Tabor Heights diner and, after a cute exchange in which the charismatic Italian bootlegger asks the waitress to describe what spaghetti and meatballs are (“It’s like a noodle with a red sauce with balls of meat”), he tries to order some wine, but is stopped by the sheriff walking in. After encouraging Gyp to have coffee instead (hence the episode’s title, “Spaghetti and Coffee”), the sheriff – who’s totally on to Gyp – suggests that he head out of town.
It hasn’t been easy to feel much sympathy for Eli over the past two seasons, because he’s spent them either whining about how good his brother has it or plotting to kill him. Now that he’s done hard time, he’s a shell of the headstrong police officer he once was, and while he is welcomed back with open arms by his wife, June, and seven of his eight kids, his relationship with his eldest son, Will, is visibly strained. There are some good heartstring-pulling moments when Eli tries to impress Will by mentioning that he read Shakespeare while locked up – and how he stays up all night building the model airplane from Will’s “two birthdays ago” that his son never touched. But Will doesn’t care – he’s grown up since Dad became a jailbird, and he’s got to get to work.
At Nucky’s warehouse, Mickey is paying off Van Alden‘s former colleague, Agent Sawicki, to keep the Feds at bay (guess that lunchtime chat Van Alden had with Sawicki last season regarding whether Prohibition should be considered “Malum in se” or “Malum prohibitum” made an impact – Malum prohibitum it is!). Shortly afterward, Eli is put to work lugging crates of whiskey. Owen, now in a higher position in Nucky’s regime than his own brother, takes pity on Eli and offers him an extra $50 for his participation in that evening’s journey to Brooklyn. Eli refuses the money, but he’s emasculated enough that he begrudgingly accepts Owen’s gun. The car fleet heads out that night, stopping in Tabor Heights as planned. The gasoline there is essential, as it’s the midway point between Atlantic City and New York, with no further opportunities to fuel up the rest of the trip. But this is as far as the alcohol is going to get. The town sheriff, his deputy and Gyp apparently shared a nice meal of spaghetti and coffee – during which time Gyp offered up a larger sum than whatever was in that envelope from Mickey the day before. The armed local police surround the caravan, and a smirking Gyp emerges from the darkness to empty the gas pumps, guaranteeing that none of Nucky’s liquor makes it into Rothstein’s hands. When Owen is unable to get through to Nucky, who is still in New York, he has no choice but to order the cars (and the booze) back to Atlantic City.
Call Me Maybe
One of the reasons why Nucky doled out the Eli Thompson welcoming committee job to Mickey is because he spent the entire episode in Manhattan – either holed up at Billie’s place or making the introduction of one Milton Wadd – erm, Gaston Means, Special Investigator of the United States Department of Justice. The Southern-drawling Means is Nucky’s new liaison to Harry Daugherty, who will be collecting his monthly “protection” fee going forward. Understandably, Nucky’s a little wary of dropping $40,000 in cash into an empty hotel-room fishbowl (he calls the system “idiotic”), but considering he has no choice in the matter, he relents. I think we’re going to have a lot of fun with this new historically-based character, who presents himself as a Nucky fan: “Ordinary men avoid trouble. Extraordinary men turn it to their advantage. You and I have that in common.”
Nucky’s New York mysteries don’t end when he departs the Hotel Astor, though. For one thing, he wants to know who keeps calling Billie – and why she sounds plenty flirtatious whenever this person is on the line. He’s really fallen for this girl, but then again, as with Margaret before her, maybe he just wants her because he can’t have her. But there’s a chilling moment early in the episode when Nucky is in Billie’s bathroom, unscrewing the blade from a razor. He pauses, and then reluctantly puts it back. What’s that all about? Is he still depressed over murdering Jimmy? Cheating on Margaret? Billie not taking their relationship seriously? Or is this all an act – could he be trying to kill Billie?
It’s just too early to say if this is a ruse or not. By the end of the episode, Nucky is cooking Billie dinner (never did that for Margaret!) and musing about a life that would allow him to remain with his mistress permanently: “I want everything to run by itself,” he says, with sadness in his voice. But Billie shrugs that off as pure fantasy, and besides, she seems to want a few barriers to remain between them. “I said I’d never tell,” she says cryptically when Nucky pries for the name of the unknown caller. “And you said you’d never ask.” The bottom line is, Nucky needs to get his head in the game and out of Billie’s ass, because in his effort to keep her supposed admirer(s) away – he forbade Billie from picking up the phone when Owen tried to alert him about the botched operation in Tabor Heights – he allows Gyp to take over a key town in his domain, with very little effort.
Person of Interest
No word yet on how Nucky’s new business plan factors into his own endeavors, so in the meantime, Chalky is keeping busy by running a juke joint and arranging a marriage for his eldest daughter. Samuel, as hinted at last season, remains the 1920s version of John Prentice: He’s polite and respectful in the way he asks Chalky for Maybelle’s hand, and he even gives his future father-in-law a free medical exam just to prove his salt (Chalky needs to eat more leafy veggies). No longer intimidated by Samuel’s proper speech and upbringing, Chalky understands that this marriage can be Maybelle’s ticket out of the violent lifestyle that has kept her fed and clothed. Maybelle, however, knows that he’s capable of “getting rid” of someone, and the idea of marrying the dull Samuel is so loathesome to her that she doesn’t even wince when Chalky suggests the alternative – living “in the backseat of a car, swag a buck with a pistol, wife two county over?” It sounds so romantic that she thinks she’ll just “write a poem about it.” But Chalky snuffs out the stars in her eyes right quick: “You’re marrying that boy,” he growls. I’m not one for arranged marriages, but there is real love and fear for a daughter’s safety in those four words, so for Maybelle’s sake, she better get this teenage rebellion over with soon.
Good news is it only takes about 24 hours. Maybelle is awakened from her reverie the next evening when she drags Samuel to Chalky’s juke joint. Amid the hot jazz and fervent dancing, Samuel looks like he’s going to burst into tears, because he knows she isn’t interested in marrying him anymore. Their conversation keeps getting interrupted by a couple bumping into their table, and all Samuel gets for his brand of toughness (i.e. a courteous request to watch their step) is a slash across his cheek. Dunn Purnsley leaps out of nowhere to bring down the knife-wielder, beating him to a pulp and earning Employee of the Month in the process. Samuel, adhering steadfastly to the Hippocratic oath, ignores Chalky’s exhortations not to assist the bloodied man lying on the floor. Maybelle, her innocence officially over – also in big trouble when her daddy catches her in his club – starts to rethink that whole backseat-riding, poem-writing path, especially when her father asks, “You interested now?”
Wrap-Up Gyp’s buyout of the Tabor Heights police sends a very clear message to Nucky that he is not someone to be trifled with. But if Nucky’s going to farm out his dirty work, he may want to hire more menacing goons now that Manny Horvitz has kicked the bucket. Sorry, Owen, but Gyp cuts a much more shadowy figure than you do.
Previously: Gangster’s Paradise